Like most people, I watched the Ebola plague tear through Africa two years ago with a feeling of helpless horror. I saw the victims dying by the thousands on television, all eulogized by the same stark words: “No cure.” There seemed to be some unstoppable and malevolent force in the universe, seeking not only the destruction of human life, but hope itself.
In my third year of medical school, I was taking care of an elderly patient who had been in and out of the hospital multiple times in one month. Upon his third admission, my exasperated attending threw up his hands and said, “Who am I, Sisyphus?” I understood how he felt. Like the mythological Greek king rolling his boulder up the hill — only to have it roll back down again, ad infinitum — no matter what we did to manage this patient, he always returned to the hospital sicker than before.
Not long ago, I was on duty in the emergency department, sewing up a kid’s lacerated hand. He was ten years old and terrified. I had to make all kinds of promises to numb him up before starting. As I cajoled him, I had the strangest sense of déjà vu. I realized that I had lived through the same experience myself — as a young boy sitting in my kitchen with a torn up hand, having careened on roller-skates into a pile of rocks. Only the doctor had been my father, and he had coaxed and pleaded with me just like I was doing now.
Many of us have this romanticized version of the ED in our heads from some TV drama. We imagine a world where beautiful physicians are sprinting next to flying gurneys, pounding chests and snarling, “Get me epi, STAT!” We imagine a war zone rife with Shakespearean tragedy, with heart-breaking moments that leave grizzled doctors weeping.
We stood in the shadows, a staggered line of nurses, students and surgeons in matching blue scrubs and masks. It was the middle of the night. Our tired bodies sagged against the walls, our bloodshot eyes dancing between the clock above and the gasping life below. A young man was dying in the operating room. He lay on the cutting table with his arms splayed wide, like a martyred saint stretched upon the cross.
Cadaver. The word itself seems devoid of life. And, so too does the white plastic bag lying unceremoniously before me. It’s the first day of anatomy, and I unzip the tarp and stare down at a wet, grey lump of clay. There it is. There is what, exactly? What was I expecting? Some warm human soul, freshly sprung from the loins of life? No. That’s not this. The essence of life is gone — absolutely, irrevocably, unquestionably, gone.